During the summer of 2009, we were working on the history book about the Space Shuttle, ‘Wings in Orbit’. We had hired three summer interns, college students, to help with the book. Their primary assignments were to build the appendices, check references, make tables, and the like. Unusual for NASA interns, these three were not technical majors, but history, English, and social science majors. They did a great job for us.
One of the ‘other duties as assigned’ that we gave the interns was to read a chapter a week and report on it to the editorial board. All the writing was done by the engineers and scientist who worked on the shuttle program, and, sadly, engineers are not always known for excellence in written communications. We asked the interns to provide a critical look at the readability of each chapter and to be especially on the lookout for unfamiliar terms or acronyms that would make the text hard to follow for the general public.
One memorable week, one of the interns drew the assignment of reading the draft chapter on the historical setting of the space shuttle. I thought this might be unnecessary since Dennis Webb is a great writer and there was almost nothing technical in the chapter. At the end of the week, we convened the editorial board for a number of topics and had the intern’s reports at the end of the agenda. First up was a review of the chapter on the APUs and hydraulics. As you might expect, the intern pointed out several instances of very technical jargon and a number of undefined acronyms, all of which would have to be cleared up by rewrite. Then we covered a chapter on another technical subject with similar results. Finally it was time for the report on the history chapter. The young lady, probably a sophomore level college student, said that the chapter was very well written, easy to understand, and she had no recommendations for rewrite except for one term that she was unfamiliar with. ‘What was that?’ we inquired. She replied that the term she did not understand was:
I was thunderstruck. For someone of my generation, the idea that anyone would not know about the cold war is unthinkable. A short discussion ensued to make sure we had communicated correctly, but the bottom line was that she really hadn’t heard the term before and was unfamiliar with the concept.
More recently I had a conversation with a friend whose children are early high schoolers. He and his son were home alone one evening and decided to watch a movie together. On the schedule that evening was “The Hunt for Red October” based on the book by Tom Clancy. My friend reports that his teenage son didn’t quite get it. He kept asking why there was a big deal; after all the Russians are our friends, right?
Both of these young people were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those were ‘current events’ shortly before they were born. Given the lag in grade school history texts, those events were too recent to be covered.
When I was their age, nuclear annihilation stared us in the face. I can remember, probably when I was in 4th or 5th grade, when my parents came home from a Civil Defense meeting with plans of how to build a fallout shelter (we didn’t build one). In middle school the civics teacher showed us the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission – forerunner to the Department of Energy) films with the bomb tests in Nevada. You know the ones where they set up houses, mannequins with clothes, cars, household goods, etc., to see how a nearby bomb blast would affect those things. The message from those documentaries was that it was unsurvivable. I got to practice the ‘duck and cover’ method of hiding under our classroom desks if there was a bright flash in the sky. Again, the message came down that we were on the edge of annihilation and not likely to survive.
In high school history we studied the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close we came to the end in October of 1961. There were B-52 bombers on armed standby at air force bases near my home. I can remember as a high school student, plotting the likely fallout path from ‘targets’ near my home based on prevailing winds so that we would know which way to travel to survive following a nuclear exchange. That wouldn’t have helped either.
How that affected the psychology of two generations has been studied by sociologists. It motivated people in so very many unusual ways.
And today’s kids don’t know what the term “cold war” means. I think that is a good thing. Not that they don’t need to understand history, but that those days are behind us. Hopefully for good, notwithstanding some burbles in the geopolitics these days.
There are a lot fewer nuclear weapons in the world these days – still too many – but the finger on the trigger seems to be a lot more relaxed. For our grandchildren’s sake I hope it stays that way.
We worry about a lot of things these days; there are serious problems all around us. But I think the level of worry is at a much lower intensity than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
And that is a good thing.